Avars across a sea of grass

That sound you hear is the rumbling of the earth caused by the rippling tsunami that’s coming. The swell of ancient DNA papers focused on historical, rather than prehistorical, time periods. Some historians are cheering. Some are fearful. Others know not what to think. It will be. The illiterate barbarians of yore shall come out of the shadows.

If they had arrived on the edge of Europe two centuries earlier, the Avars would have a reputation as fearsome with the Huns, with whom they are often confused, and rightly so. But the Avars emerged as a force on the European landscape after the end of the West Roman Empire. The post-Roman polities did not have their own Ammianus Marcellinus (sorry Bede, you lived in the middle of nowhere).

And yet for centuries the Avars dominated east-central Europe and held the numerous Slavic tribes in thrall. They smashed past the borders of Byzantium during the reign of the heir of Justinian, and by 600 AD, on the eve of the great battle with Persia Constantinople had lost control of most of its Balkan hinterlands to these barbarians. A Byzantium which still controlled North Africa, much of Italy, southern Spain, Egypt, Anatolia, and the Levant, had been reduced to strongpoints all around the Balkan littoral. During the wars with the Sassanids, the Avars took advantage of the opportunity offered, and even raided the suburbs of Constantinople itself!

So who were these people? The most plausible conjecture is that they were part of the great mass mobilization of Turkic peoples which began in the early centuries of the first millennium after Christ. As Rome and Han China fell, nomadic barbarians rose. A new preprint seems to all but confirms this, Inner Asian maternal genetic origin of the Avar period nomadic elite in the 7th century AD Carpathian Basin:

After 568 AD the nomadic Avars settled in the Carpathian Basin and founded their empire, which was an important force in Central Europe until the beginning of the 9th century AD. The Avar elite was probably of Inner Asian origin; its identification with the Rourans (who ruled the region of today’s Mongolia and North China in the 4th-6th centuries AD) is widely accepted in the historical research. Here, we study the whole mitochondrial genomes of twenty-three 7th century and two 8th century AD individuals from a well-characterised Avar elite group of burials excavated in Hungary. Most of them were buried with high value prestige artefacts and their skulls showed Mongoloid morphological traits. The majority (64%) of the studied samples’ mitochondrial DNA variability belongs to Asian haplogroups (C, D, F, M, R, Y and Z). This Avar elite group shows affinities to several ancient and modern Inner Asian populations. The genetic results verify the historical thesis on the Inner Asian origin of the Avar elite, as not only a military retinue consisting of armed men, but an endogamous group of families migrated. This correlates well with records on historical nomadic societies where maternal lineages were as important as paternal descent.

The samples were from a period about a century after the arrival of the Avars. It is not unreasonable to think that the Avar conquest meant that a continuous stream of Inner Asian pastoralists kept entering into the territory which they occupied for the opportunity, but this sort of genetic distinctiveness indicates that the Avars remained very separate from the people from whom they extracted tribute. Most, though not all, of these people, were or became Slavs.

Around 800 AD the Avars were finally defeated decisively by the Franks, and their elite converted to Christianity. I suspect this was the final step which would result in their assimilation over the next few centuries into the location population until they diminished and disappeared.

The results above support the proposition that the Pannonian Avars of the second half of the 6th century were the descendants of the Rouran Khaganate of the early half 6th century. The kicker is that the Rouran flourished in Mongolia! So like the Mongols six hundred years later, the Avars seem to have swept across the entire length of Eurasia that was accessible to their horses in a generation. To some extent, this is a recapitulation of the pattern we see nearly 3,000 years before the Avar, when the Afanasievo culture established itself in the Altai region, far from its clear point of origin in the forest-steppe of Eastern Europe.

Perhaps the period between 500 BC and 300 AD can be seen as an ephemeral transient between the vast periods before and after when pastoralists had free reign across most of temperate Eurasia?


7 thoughts on “Avars across a sea of grass

  1. Fascinating! Thank you for this post. Avars are frequently touted as those who transmitted the use of stirrups to Europe from East Asia and made possible the rise of mounted knights in the Middle Ages.

  2. Outside of my window I can see the island of Hvar in the Adriatic Sea. Over a decade ago a DNA study was commissioned that showed that 14% of the males of the eastern portion of the island have Q as Y-DNA. I know this study deals with mtDNA but the question that has circulated since that study is whether this population is a remnant of the Avars who had to flee the mainland when the Franks and Croat (and other Slavic tribes) pushed the Avars out and finally defeated them.

  3. I do wonder why the Avars assimilated while the Magyars didn’t. They’re both migrants from the steppe that settled in Hungary so why did only one manage to maintain ethnic identity?


  4. Interesting to think that if not for the Magyars, we’d very likely have a Slavic nation in Pannonia called Avaria, a northern analog to Bulgaria.

    Are there any historical questions in particular that you’re hoping to see get the genetic treatment? Suppose we have enough Xiongnu and Hun elite burials, would looking at very specific uniparental clades be enough to confirm a connection between them? I’m hoping we can do more than just conclude that a particular group had East/Inner Asian ancestry.

  5. The Alans – an Iranian people ancestral to the Ossetes – are interesting historical predecessors to the Avars; apparently they (aka Sarmatians or Scythians) served as horse cavalry for the Roman army, eg in Britain, and work of the linguist G Dumezil suggests their


    as a source for much of the Arthurian legends (ladies with magic swords emerging from lakes etc). Many apparently wound up in the Pyrenees (Languedoc), were possibly a source of the Cathar heresy, and provided Europe with the personal name Alan which persists today…

  6. The Great Courses lecture series “The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes” (available on Audible) is fantastic. I have been recommending it for months. Xiongnu through the Ottoman Turks. 31 hours long, worth every moment.


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